ST. PETERSBURG — While students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg awaited a lashing from Hurricane Irma, the school's leader fled the state for Atlanta and insinuated in an email to her boss that she remained on campus — going so far as to say things were quiet and that she heard birds chirping.
After the storm, USF officials moved to fire USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska for incompetence and "lack of leadership," criticizing her departure and alleging that she had hesitated to evacuate students as Irma grew more dangerous.
"Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community," System President Judy Genshaft wrote in a draft termination letter.
Wisniewska negotiated a resignation on Monday, so the letter was not officially sent. In a response to USF, she defended herself and said she had pushed for early evacuations from the vulnerable, waterfront campus, but was shut down.
"I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP," Wisniewska wrote in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times Monday night. "Certainly, I did nothing to warrant firing for cause. . . . I resigned this evening without hard feelings and with optimism for the future. My only regret is that I was unable to achieve all of our goals for USFSP."
Genshaft excoriated Wisniewska for her decisions amid the storm.
On Sept. 6, while Irma looked to be headed elsewhere, Genshaft cancelled classes, but kept dorms open at the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses. Wisniewska said she suggested closing USFSP dorms, but was overruled, since local officials hadn't ordered evacuations.
By the next night, Irma's track had shifted, elevating the danger for students at the St. Petersburg campus. And at that point, Genshaft expected Wisniewska to adjust to the change, even though the county had not yet ordered evacuations.
Instead, the chancellor pushed back when asked to close dorms, sticking to Genshaft's initial guidance. She wanted legal advice about her authority to order students out.
Genshaft wrote Monday: "I expect a competent regional chancellor to be able to process this weather information and respond to the evolving emergency."
She added: "The issue here is not legal authority; it is leadership competence in an emergency situation."
Ultimately, 10 remaining students were ordered out of dorms the morning of Sept. 9.
Furthermore, Genshaft wrote, Wisniewska's absence created a muddled chain of command and hampered communication.
Wisniewska never told Genshaft that she was leaving Florida. Emails in her personnel file show that she seems to have misled her boss about her whereabouts.
"I'd like to know if you've walked your campuses and the status of those physically on campus," Genshaft emailed Wisniewska on the evening of Sept. 9. "What is your current status as you settle in for the next couple days?"
Late that night, Wisniewska responded.
"As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking," she wrote. She said she had talked to a student studying for a test and peeked into the campus tavern before it closed for the weekend. "All quiet before the storm."
In an email the next morning, as Irma began battering Florida, Wisniewska wrote Genshaft again. The residence halls were locked and empty. Officials on campus were hunkering down.
"Stay safe," she wrote. "P.S. Last night, I arrived in Atlanta, where I will stay for the next two days."
Genshaft's chief of staff quickly responded: "Are you in St. Pete?"
In a letter to USF on Monday, Wisniewska disputed the university's criticism. She said she had wanted to evacuate students earlier, but that Genshaft disagreed, only to change her mind the next day. She said she left only after closing dorms and making sure staff were ready.
"I had my finger on the pulse of the campus through the storm and as it weakened," she wrote.
She said she held a teleconference to discuss damage before chartering a private plane to return as soon as she could.
"The actual facts are that I exercised sound judgment at all times, led my team successfully, communicated continuously, and most importantly, put the safety of the students first — requesting they be evacuated even prior to the USF President (agreeing) to an evacuation of all residence halls," Wisniewska wrote.
In a resignation agreement, neither USF nor Wisniewska allege wrongdoing. Wisniewska immediately leaves her post and loses tenure. For the rest of the semester, she will stay off campus for "professional development leave," preparing her for an online teaching assignment in the spring.
She will be paid based on her current salary of $265,000 for 60 days. After that, her pay will be converted to her faculty salary rate until May 1, when she will leave USF. If she leaves before May 1, her pay would stop.
She will collect 20 weeks severance without benefits.
The Tampa Bay Times learned late Friday of Wisniewska's ouster, but USF officials said they could not yet disclose why. Students, faculty and local leaders scratched their heads and traded rumors about the abrupt departure of a well-liked leader.
"I was stunned," said St. Petersburg City Council Member Karl Nurse. "I thought she did a marvelous job."
On Saturday, Genshaft emailed USF faculty and staff about the leadership change without mentioning Wisniewska's name.
"I know everyone has experienced many challenges as a result of Hurricane Irma," her letter began. "Your safety is our highest priority."
Genshaft named Martin Tadlock, the regional campus' top academic officer, as interim leader. On Monday, Tadlock met with students to reassure them about the university's direction. He praised Wisniewska and said he understands students' anxiety, "especially following a hurricane — It's like we had two of those last week."
He said he got a phone call from Genshaft on Thursday, asking him to step into the leadership role. He said he paused for so long that the president asked, "Are you still there?"
He said yes, he told students, to show his loyalty to USF and to maintain continuity, since he was hired for syncing with Wisniewska's vision.
Wisniewska came to the small regional university of 4,700 students in 2013, as the young school sought to reinvent itself from a commuter hub to a first-choice university.
She helped craft a strategic plan, which proposed doubling the student body and building brand-name degree programs. She also brought in major donations, including the school's largest-ever gift, $10 million toward naming the Kate Tiedemann College of Business.
In recent months, USF officials had both congratulated Wisniewska on her successes and encouraged her to dig deeper into USFSP's trouble spots, including graduation rates.
Local officials on Monday expressed bewilderment as USF did not explain the ouster until late in the day.
"From the outside, it looked like she did just what they wanted," said William D. Law, the retired president of St. Petersburg College.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson said Wisniewska was "the consummate educational professional."
Darden Rice, City Council member, said Wisniewska was "everywhere" in St. Petersburg.
"She's very visible and prominent and well-liked," she said.
Wisniewska did not respond to a request for comment Monday. On Friday, she texted a Times reporter that she was leaving her post with pride.
"In the life of any institution, there are natural times for leadership change," Wisniewska wrote. "This is one of them."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]
USF St. Petersburg by the numbers
Average high school GPA of students
Faculty and staff
Acres of campus
* 2016 academic year
Source: USF St. Petersburg